Context, Context, Context!

Pastor John, in your article about rules of interpretation you mention context as being vital in terms of obtaining the correct interpretation of a text or passage. Can you expand on that a little more? What I do is look up a word’s meaning in a dictionary. Isn’t that enough?

Thanks for your excellent question. Actually my short answer is “no, that is not enough.” First of all, we need to make sure we move beyond using an English dictionary to either use a Hebrew dictionary for the Old Testament words or a Greek dictionary for New Testament ones. That might be an obvious thing to say, but it should not be assumed that all people realize this. The words in our Bibles are translations from the original Hebrew and Greek and to be sure of a word’s meaning, we need to go to the source language for an accurate definition.

But even this is not enough. I am all in favor of looking up the meaning of words. Indeed, this should be our starting point. However, what happens when we go through this process is that we find that each word has what we call a “semantic range.” That is simply a technical term to say that each word has a range of uses and meanings. A word can be used in many different ways.

This is true in English as well as the Biblical languages. For instance, lets take the word “fox.” If you go to an English dictionary and look up the word “fox” you will find a number of meanings (not just one). It can mean a four legged animal with a bushy tail; a type of car (made in the 1980’s) or it can be a slang term used for a very pretty woman. So, when you are reading a book and you come across the word “fox”, what is it referring to? Does it mean an animal with four legs, a car, or a fine looking lady?

The answer is found by checking the context in which you find the word. Importantly, you can actually be sure of the answer. It is not mere guess work.

Let me illustrate this by giving you an example. Imagine then that you are reading a magazine article about the British Royal family and come across the following sentence:

“The male members of the Royal family often spend their summer days fox hunting in the English countryside.”

I think it would be fair to say that the word “fox” in “fox hunting” here is not talking about the Royal family going to local car dealerships in search of a car, or looking for beautiful women in the locality (one would certainly hope this is not the case anyway!). “Fox” here refers to the four legged tailed kind that has a bushy tail. It is this meaning that makes the most sense in the context in which the word is found.

If someone took the sentence to mean that the Royals were desperate to find a means of transport, or that the male Royals were simply unabashed womanizers, it would be a huge violation of interpretation. To view the word “fox” in any of these two other ways (other than the four footed kind with a bushy tail) would be to totally misinterpret and misrepresent the intended meaning of the author. More than that, to do so would bring shocking, unnecessary and unwarranted scandal to the members of the Royal family. That’s extremely serious, I am sure you would agree.

As serious as this situation would be, it could well be argued that the task of Biblical interpretation is even more serious. Misinterpretation can often impugn and distort the very character of God, which is of course, the ultimate scandal. It is for this reason that Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). If we are not diligent in our study there remains the distinct possibility of being ashamed when we stand to give an account of this great privilege before God. If that sounds somewhat scary, it is because it IS scary. There is no place for a reckless or cavalier attitude in this matter of biblical interpretation.

The same rules of interpretation that apply to writing apply to the biblical text. The Bible is certainly a special book. It is God’s own holy word. Yet it is a book, and in a sense, should be read as any other book. Nouns are still nouns, verbs remain verbs, and so on.

Though we can and should look up the meaning of words in a good Hebrew or Greek dictionary, that is not the end of the process for the simple reason that this will only give us the possible meaning of words (the semantic range). Having done that we then need to look at the context where the word is found to see how it is being used in each case.

Lets see this by looking at a very familiar and important word – the word “world.” John uses the word “world” in at least ten different ways in his Gospel. That might be a big surprise to us, but lets see this outlined. John uses the word “world” to denote:

1. The Entire Universe
John 1: 10 He was in the world (planet earth), and the world (planet earth and by implication all creation) was made through him, yet the world (the people of the world) did not know him.

John 17:5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

2. The Physical Earth
John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John 16:33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 21:25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

3. The World System
John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.

John 14:30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me…

John 16:11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

4. All humanity minus believers
John 7:7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.

John 15:18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.

5. A Big Group but less than all people everywhere
John 12:19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

6. The Elect Only
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

7. The Non-Elect Only
John 17:9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.

8. The Realm of Mankind
John 1:10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.

(this is very probably the best understanding of the word “world” in John 3:16 also)

9. Jews and Gentiles (not just Israel but many Gentiles too)
John 4:42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

10. The General Public (as distinguished from a private group) – not those in small private groups John 7:3, 4 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”

Seeing this list can be very helpful – especially when traditions reign supreme in some people’s minds that “world” always means all people everywhere. Sometimes it does, but most of the time, it does not. It is a tradition that is very strong but one that cannot survive biblical scrutiny.

The fact is that all of us who read God’s word have the audacity to interpret it. Interpretation is unavoidable. My plea is that we will employ the necessary attention to context so that we may gain the right one. Clearly it is context that establishes the correct meaning and interpretation of words.

Once again, thank you for your question. I hope my answer is useful.